Why Trade Globally?
Cape Cod has a seasonal economy.
By Renée Magriel Roberts
We live and work on Cape Cod, a beautiful place, with more temperate weather than most of New England during the year. From an economic perspective, however, the Cape has long been somewhat infamous for its seasonal tourist economy, a kind of boom-or-bust cycle that peaks during the tourist season in July and August, and can drop to depressing levels the rest of the year when the Cape is home to a less affluent year-round population who can't afford the time or money to escape to warmer climes.
Add to this the incredible pressure on bricks-and-mortar stores by the Internet. So when we opened our rare book business after a long stint in the computer technology world, we decided to eschew bricks-and-mortar, saving a ton of monthly overhead, and the uneven local economy and go Web-only. And not only go Web, but go global.
Selling books overseas can be a daunting and somewhat scary business, and it is certainly not without its dangers. Incredibly there is little help to be had from even the largest local banks, the Chamber of Commerce, or the United States Department of Commerce. Nonetheless, from a business perspective, global trading has been very important and certainly now forms a significant amount of our sales and purchases.
We did start with a linguistic advantage. It helps to be able to communicate in more than one language. We have spoken and written French, written Italian, German, and Russian. But even if you skipped out on your high school language classes, you can still sell books overseas.
Most of our books are written in English, although we list books written in any language that uses the Roman alphabet. So, to begin with, we are dealing with customers who by and large can already read English, even if we cannot read their native language. It helps, however, to be able to communicate politely with them.
First of all, and pardon me if this seems overly simplistic, it really helps to understand what niceties are generally expected by customers in different countries. For example, communications in some countries always begin with an English honorific (Mr., Ms.). Our casual American way of addressing new acquaintances by their first names can seem rude to people who live elsewhere. So, even when I receive an order from a website that omits the honorific, I try to add it to my address labels and communications.
Similarly, the way in which we end letters may not be ideal - it can seem rather cold to conclude a note with "yours truly" or nothing at all but your company name. A lot of people like to know with whom they are trading, so I always include a real name, generally mine, as well as anything someone might need to communicate with us, like email address, fax number, telephone, or mailing address. If a country uses a warm closing, I try to emulate it in my English-language closing.
Why Trade Globally?
Writing a polite letter is still an important global trading skill.
Finally, one of the first things we did when we decided to sell overseas, was to print out the ways in which people say "thank you" in other languages. It may seem a small thing, but I think it shows a sincere effort to communicate, and of course express thanks for the business.
From a safety perspective, you want to make as certain as you can that the books you send get to their destination safely. That means taking special care in packaging. We go to great lengths to make sure books are well-packed, understanding that they are going to be knocked around in the lengthier mailing trip overseas. For larger books, we additionally use double-wall cardboard and have been known to suspend valuable books in cardboard and bubblewrap within these double-wall boxes.
Right now we are using the post office, which also offers insurance to some countries not covered by our package insurance provider (www.u-pic.com). Insurance generally forces the customer to sign for the package. Packages not insured through the USPS are insured through u-pic. We try to avoid having lost books by not shipping to countries that are not covered by our package insurer: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Barbados,
Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Burma, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Cuba, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Libya, Malaysia, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria,
North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Papua/New Guinea, Poland, Romania, Rwanda, Senegal,
Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Yemen. U-pic also lists the former Yugoslavia. Most of these are common sense non-starters. Our package insurance policy also covers third-party shipments and incoming shipments.
You can always choose to ship or to not ship to a customer, or to ask for alternative forms of payment. I believe that the safest method is still an incoming wire transfer to your bank account. This avoids the problems related to stolen credit cards and chargebacks.
We also chose to establish presences overseas, currently in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany. In order to do this we set up foreign corporations and bank accounts. This allows us to readily accept payments in pounds sterling, euros, and Canadian dollars.
The first time we tried to do this it took a year of completely unsuccessful attempts to open an overseas bank account. I filled out endless applications and was completely ignored. Things don't work the same as they do here; in other countries' relationships are more important than just having money to put up. I had just about given up trying to accomplish this when a friend who had just come back from the U.K. as an ex-pat gave me some of the best advice I've had in this endeavor: she introduced me to her U.K. accountant.
After some initial correspondence, and connecting up the U.K. accountant with my own (yes, you need an accountant, even if you file a 1040 EZ form) and with my banker (yes, you need a real name), it only took a few weeks to successfully accomplish our goals. In the end, our new accountant just called a bank in London, and within a week, we had a relationship manager and a new account.
Why Trade Globally?
The U.S. Department of Commerce could be more helpful, but that does not mean you should not trade globally.
When we realized that things had to be done differently, subsequent set-ups were far less difficult. Our U.K. accountant introduced us to our German firm, whose principals were also the principals in a large bank, and made similar introductions to Canada; and our U.K. bank made the introduction to one of its Canadian branches.
Trading globally has not only opened up our potential customer base, but it has also given us an advantageous position when the U.S. dollar drops in value. When the dollar goes down, our overseas sales go up. I would expect that any of my colleagues who show at large book fairs could also attest to the influx of overseas customers when the dollar is weak.
So the next time you hear about some bookseller being ripped-off by an Indonesian scamster (you know, the typical order for the expensive book, ship it Express please, and here's a stolen credit card), don't give up on global trading. You can trade overseas safely, profitably, and with pleasure.
Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at email@example.com.